Lithgow regales Westport crowd with 'chameleon' acting tales
Published 1:30 pm, Friday, November 11, 2011
As if versatile Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor John Lithgow wasn't enough of a draw, former Westport Public Library trustee David Rubenstein opened the Malloy Lecture in the Arts Thursday at Bedford Middle School by telling the audience that a notable local person appears in Lithgow's new book, "Drama, An Actor's Education."
"She's wearing clothes. Stay tuned for details," Rubenstein said. "She" is Annie Keefe, associate artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse, who indeed is mentioned on page 237 of Lithgow's book. Keefe was the stage manager for a production of "The Changing Room" at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven that opened on Nov. 7, 1972, in which Lithgow played a rugby player. He and some other actors appeared nude in the play, which he recounts in a chapter titled "Naked."
"If there was any opening night that could be said to have launched my career as a working actor, that was it," Lithgow says in the book. That's despite growing up in a theatrical family. His mother had been an actress. His father founded and managed local theaters and Shakespeare festivals throughout the Midwest.
The play went from New Haven to Broadway, where Lithgow won a Tony Award for his performance.
Lithgow told the audience of about 600 people at the Westport Library-sponsored event that he did not intend to become an actor. His interest was art, and he still paints as a hobby. He credits his participation in his father's productions, playing a range of Shakespearean characters, with his ability to play any role.
"I do believe that was the beginning of my career of changing colors like a chameleon. I just love working in comedy and tragedy and horror and romance," said Lithgow, who will appear in a new Broadway play, "The Columnist," next spring.
Lithgow said his decision to become an actor came when he got an enthusiastic reaction from the audience of a Gilbert and Sullivan performance in which he had stepped in last minute to replace another actor while he was studying at Harvard University.
"Introducing John is a particularly daunting challenge ... I wonder how does one summarize this rather dazzling life," Rubenstein said, mentioning some of Lithgow's long list of credits, awards and recognitions. Rubenstein said the small sample of clips of Lithgow's work shown at the event "is astonishing in its variety and range," and provides some explanation as to why the actor is so hard to define.
Lithgow has appeared in numerous films, Broadway plays and musicals, and television series in roles ranging from an alien in "3rd Rock from the Sun" to the diabolical Trinity Killer on Showtime's "Dexter."
"He's ambidextrous in terms of acting. His range is so broad," said Ed Brennan of Westport, moments after his wife Jane Ross shared a personal moment with Lithgow after the presentation, when the actor autographed books.
Ross and Lithgow were classmates at Harvard. "One of my funniest memories was playing touch football in Regents Park, and John was the captain of the team," she said. Lithgow was as outgoing then as now, Ross said, and recalled that he danced around to distract the other team to "make sure it was uproariously funny and make sure everyone had a tremendously good time."
Thursday's audience had a good time listening to Lithgow's anecdotes and reading from his book.
Particularly amusing was his reading of an excerpt from the chapter titled, "Curtains," about his experience as the curtain puller for Marcel Marceau in which Lithgow accidentally upstaged the famous French mime with a curtain mishap.
There were touching moments, too. He opened the presentation with a story about his father's declining health and the "deep, dark depression" that resulted. Lithgow made it his responsibility to entertain his parents, particularly his father, who did not respond until Lithgow began reading them bedtime stories.
At one story by P.G. Wodehouse, "my father started to laugh. The more I read the harder he laughed ... The most wonderful sound," he said. "I'm convinced that it was sometime during the reading of that story that he came back to life."
Someone else tried to get him to reveal who he admires most among those in today's entertainment field. He said it would be easier to say who he least admires, but, "Of course, I'm not going to answer that."
Asked by one person in the audience about his spirituality, Lithgow said he was not raised in a particular faith. "Religion for us was Shakespeare and the theater," he said.
Another asked when he knew he had made it as a professional performer. "I'm still waiting," he joked before saying, "I'm an extremely lucky actor. I've had so many `aha' moments."
Keefe asked him to perform at the Westport Country Playhouse in a production of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Although he didn't commit, Lithgow admitted he's "growing into Prospero."
Neil Hershkowitz of Norwalk was first in line to get his book signed afterward. "I've been following his career for many years, since the `Changing Room.' I actually saw the play on Broadway. He's a very talented actor and he seems very approachable," Hershkowitz said.
Yvonne Senturia had a book signed for her son, Jacob Henkoff, a student in the Actor's Studio in New York. When she texted Jacob to tell him about Thursday's presentation, he texted back: "Tell him I loved him as the Trinity Killer in `Dexter.' "
"Not only is he an amazing storyteller, but his voice delivery is just beautiful. He's everything I thought he would be in person: personable, lively and down-to-earth," said Christina Frost of Westport, who said her family is involved in the theater.